Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production of 1776, a musical by Peter Stone with music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards that focuses on why and how the Declaration of Independence was written, is over 3 hours long, including a fifteen minute intermission. Did it feel like 3 hours? To answer that question, I must break down the show, hour by hour.
The musical starts out with a rousing, loud, all-male sung “Sit Down, John”. It is the first and only time the main character of John Adams and the Congress sing together and they sound wonderful – full of spitfire and spirit. It also literally sets the stage, which in this production, happens to be a beautiful turn-table style contraption that spins the Congress off and on. James Noone, (scenic design), Kirk Bookman (lighting design), Ruth E. Kramer (production stage manager) and Fredric H. Orner (asst. stage manager) did a great job making the stage look both accurate and true to the time period, while at the same time maintaining creative expression with it as well. Three benches marked stage left, right and down. It made for some fun bits of choreography. The small calendar to the right of where Congress convenes, counting the days to July 4, is an especially nice touch.
Of course, we’re also treated to the first sights of the costumes. Martha Bromelmeier had that enviable task, and Sherry Deberson was in charge of hair and wig design. Every actor looked resplendent – and sometimes silly – in their garb, and it worked in instantly creating the time and place of the year 1776. Not a powdered strand of wig hair was out of place. Actor Darren Eliker, who plays John Dickinson, looked particularly fine in his outfit.
Speaking of…the first hour also gave way to the introduction of the most key players out of the Congress, including the aforementioned Eliker, a smarmy Hayden Tee as Edward Rutledge, a commanding Jeffrey Carpenter as John Hancock, an ambitious, touching George Merrick as John Adams, a brilliant, wry Steven Vinovich as Ben Franklin, and the scribe himself, a dashing Keith Hines as Thomas Jefferson. Trista Moldovan’s Abigail Adams was also introduced as she and her husband sang a sweet little ditty called ‘Till Then”.
Five songs were sung in that first hour, and they were all foot-tapping, catchy tunes. Every man was stellar, especially John Scherer as Richard Henry Lee during his big number, “The Lees of Old Virginia”. The man’s facial expressions alone had me cracking up! Another funny tune was “But, Mr. Adams” sung by Adams, Franklin, Jeffferson, Roger Sherman (as played by Stephen Wilde) and Robert Livingston (as played by Paul Binotta). It easily wins the prize for funniest number, and as the show moved into the second hour, it would be the last number in a while to elicit big laughs.
Hour Two was the only time I felt my seat…meaning the pacing slowed just a bit because there was a lot of exposition, a lot of talking, a lot of C-Span moments. Don’t get me wrong; they were acted brilliantly and beautifully. But after the energetic high of the first hour, the second hour took a more somber tone, focusing on the war, the bickering and antics of Congress, and the effects of independence and what that means for the country as a whole. Even Ben Franklin’s witty one-liners didn’t seem as prevalent as they were before, though the number “He Plays the Violin” sung by Libby Servais as Martha Jefferson, Franklin and Adams was a real daffodil gem in a rough-hewn song list sung by rough-hewn, burly men. Another song standout: Dickinson and the Conservatives singing Cool, Cool, Considerate Men. Eliker needs to play Javert soon; he’s got that kind of voice and presence.
It was a slow burn of an hour, but it did set up – and well – the stage for the final act, a pure boil that led to combustible results.
The pacing picked up in this final act, and the stakes were never higher. The little calendar reads July 1 – time is running out for Congress to make a first-ever UNANIMOUS vote. Adams has been pushed to his breaking point, Jefferson has turned in the document which we know today as the Declaration of Independence but, back then, was just a long-hand written piece of paper that Congress would scratch to smithereens. Franklin too is at a breaking point, trying to convince Adams that it’s a step by step process, and you can’t change the world in one long leap. And Rutledge gets to show off his pipes with the dark, sinister “Molasses to Rum”, sung with such conviction I wanted to punch the guy in the face.
Suffice to say, though a turbulent, tumultuous ride, the Declaration does indeed get signed. It’s a stunning moment when it happens, and I’m not ashamed to say a chill went through me as the lights dimmed. I won’t spoil the brilliance of the moment, but let’s just say: damn, I’m proud to be an American.
Director Ted Pappas celebrates his 13th season as Producing Artistic Director of PPT and his 20th year as its director. He’s staged more than 40 productions and man, does it show. The guy is a master at what he does, and 1776 illustrates quite vividly why. The large cast never blends together; every character is and remains distinct. The orchestra, led by F. Wade Russo, never missed a note. The sets were gorgeous and added such texture to the entire show. And the struggles of the characters, both internal and external, never engaged in over the top soap opera or melancholy pity. Their struggles remained true and relatable, mountainous and unbearable…which made the final payoff that much more sweet. And Mr. Pappas found actors that not only were utterly convincing, but also were totally passionate in their portrayals. They were all so easy to rally behind, (or want to punch in the face). Only Mr. Pappas could make the signing of the declaration so breathtaking.
The show runs now through February 24. To purchase tickets, go here. Let me know when you do. 🙂